PITTSBURGH — Matt Murray is relaxed, sitting in the dressing room with his goalie pads still strapped on and a black Penguins hat tucked low on his head. He’s been here before and it shows.
Technically still a rookie, the Pittsburgh netminder has just led his team to a 4-1 win over Nashville in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final, putting him on the verge of possibly hoisting the coveted trophy not for the first time in his short career, but the second.
While many are in awe of the 23-year-old’s grace under pressure on hockey’s biggest stage, he remains nonchalant.
“A lot of stuff out there is out of your control so I just try not to worry about anything that I can’t control and just worry about doing my job and trying to give the team the best chance to win,” Murray said after Wednesday’s 37-save performance.
Twice in two post-seasons, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan has turned to Murray at the most crucial moments over Marc-Andre Fleury, the popular 32-year-old who won a Cup with the club in 2009.
Murray justified that decision last spring in helping the Pens to their fourth Stanley Cup and is well on the way to doing so again this year. The Thunder Bay, Ont., product outplayed Ottawa’s Anderson for four games in the Eastern Conference final and has so far outclassed Predators goalie Pekka Rinne in the final.
He’s now 5-1 with a .949 even-strength save percentage in the playoffs and has a sparkling .928 clip in 28 career post-season appearances.
“He’s just such a calming presence back there,” Penguins defenceman Ian Cole said after the Game 2 win, which put Pittsburgh up 2-0 in the best-of-seven series. ”A goal goes in and he can play the exact same way right after that, which is hard for any goalie to do, but especially one that’s still really quite young.”
That coolness under fire was evident a year ago when Murray, with only 13 games of NHL experience, stepped in for a concussed Fleury and delivered. He stopped 85-of-89 Rangers shots in three first-round wins and then helped the Pens tip-toe past the Capitals and Lightning before a mostly sharp performance in the final against the Sharks (.920 save percentage).
This season, he took over for Fleury at a point when the long-time Penguin was generally shining — a telling indication of the faith he’s quickly earned from Sullivan.
Murray admits he’s much more comfortable on the Cup stage this time around. It’s as simple as knowing how everything works — like the hoopla on media day for instance — and how to avoid the potential “distractions.”
Murray says a big part of his apparent poise is disregarding outside “noise” and focusing only on the job of stopping pucks.
He was especially effective at that through two periods of Game 2, shutting down all but one of 32 shots. He denied Filip Forsberg with a left pad stop in the waning moments of the first and then employed his black, yellow and white glove to snare Forsberg off the rush in the second.
He later used that same catcher to dramatically snatch a heavy Roman Josi slapper.
“They were throwing a lot of pucks at the net,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. ”You could tell they want to do that so whether it’s from the point or from the sideboards they’re trying to get pucks in there and (Murray) did a great job of making those saves and sometimes second opportunities as well.”
Murray outplaying Rinne is largely the difference in the series so far with the 34-year-old Finn yielding eight goals on only 36 shots (.778 save percentage) so far.
Outside of a collective stretch of about eight minutes over two games, when the Penguins struck for six goals, the Predators have dictated the action, generating 60 per cent of even-strength shot attempts (91-60).
“In the times that we haven’t controlled play, he’s been our best player out there in keeping them off the board,” Penguins winger Chris Kunitz said of Murray.
Murray had the fifth-highest even-strength save percentage (.932) in his first full NHL season — trailing only Anderson and Vezina trophy finalists, Sergei Bobrovsky, Carey Price and Braden Holtby. Because he played only 13 regular-season games last year, he still qualifies as a rookie and was eligible for the Calder Trophy but didn’t make the list of finalists.
He might see his name etched on Stanley Cup for a second time instead.
It may not show, but Murray says he still gets nervous before every game.
“Nerves is one way to put it, (but) a lot of excitement too,” said Murray, the 83rd overall pick of 2012 draft. ”You get to go out and play the game you love on the biggest stage. It’s special to be a part of this. Nerves and excitement kind of mixed together, but yeah, that’s every game for me.”